Why I Quit My Tenured Position as an Associate Professor: A Reflection on the State of Preservation Education

Two weeks ago, I quit my tenured position as an associate professor at the University of Maryland, College Park to explore consulting opportunities in private practice. I am, in effect, retiring from higher education. As a staunch proponent of people-centered and human-centered historic preservation, I have learned in a particularly painful way that higher education is more interested in supporting the status quo and upholding a check-the-box mentality that values process more than social justice outcomes. In these characteristics, higher education mirrors preservation orthodoxy, which has done a far better job in preserving its doctrine and regulations than in preserving anything in the built environment.

In the end, my decision came down to self-preservation, but I also realized that by remaining in a program that would not change, I was perpetuating social injustice by tacitly upholding and perpetuating a biased curriculum that has not changed significantly since the program was created twenty years ago. In my program, I found that syllabi had not changed in decades and people with non-dominant racial and ethnic identities were severely underrepresented in course topics, readings, and guest lecturers; for decades, our faculty have been mostly white and male and our students were also mostly white; and diversity/inclusion/equity/social justice was largely represented, in a token fashion, in one class. When I questioned this status quo and, especially, when I tried to replace part-time instructors who were under-performing with more diverse and qualified faculty, I unleashed a fury in my program, directed at me, that made my professional life a living hell.

To be sure, my program is but a microcosm of the broader preservation universe. Through my many years of research, it is patently clear that people-centered change in the preservation field can only come from outside the field—mostly from planning, but also public humanities. A diversity/inclusion/equity/social justice curriculum fundamentally challenges the deeply-held values of a significant number of the white people—academics, students, practitioners—in the preservation field. For these individuals, there is a deep, psychological fascination with the physical characteristics of buildings or archaeological artifacts. The sad reality is that by placing their own personal interests in historical artifacts above community needs, these academics/students/professionals in the preservation field tacitly reject the desire of marginalized communities to redefine authenticity and heritage on their own terms because, in many cases, this empowerment deprecates the singular value of the physical, material existence of heritage objects. This is why many white people in the field will say they support diversity and inclusion work, but will not actually take action to empower marginalized communities beyond these token gestures. And, sadly, these same individuals will lash out and attack those who challenge this status quo, including people from allied built environment and social science disciplines.

I have no evidence to be able to generalize to what extent people who identify as white/non-Latinx value or do not value people-centered preservation, but all it takes is a few nay-sayers to continually derail change in practice and education, especially if these people are in positions of power. To be sure, however, there are many people with this identity who, like me, very much support people-centered historic preservation and have also been attacked for this support, such as Thomas King, Richard Hutchings, Marina La Salle, and David Rotenstein; their stories are much like mine. We eventually withdrew from the orthodox historic preservation/cultural resource management field because fabric-centered preservationists would not tolerate heretics who questioned both the orthodoxy of a fundamental belief in fabric/physicality and a bureaucracy that was only interested in sustaining the dominant racial group’s values.

The only way out of this quagmire is to create a pipeline of new professionals who embrace people-centered approaches in the field, but this is where the failings of higher education become particularly poignant. For the fifty years that historic preservation degree programs have existed in the US, they have consistently failed to recruit students that represent racial and ethnic diversity. The US Department of Education statistics show that, for decades, more than 90% of graduates of these programs identify as white and non-Hispanic/Latino, and, importantly, there is no trend in these numbers changing. Yet, research shows that minoritized students, such as African American students, are far more likely to choose a degree major that helps people. If the diversity of students could be increased in historic preservation degree programs, it seems rather likely that a new pipeline of people-centered practitioners would help to change the field.

To recruit more diverse students into historic preservation degree programs, however, requires a sea change in how “historic preservation” is taught. There is a direct relationship between the curricula of these programs and the ability of these programs to recruit diverse students. Evidence shows that BIPoC students interested in historic preservation preferentially choose programs in public humanities, such as the one at Brown University. When the historic preservation program at the University of Minnesota radically changed its traditional curriculum to embrace the public humanities several years ago, students who identified with non-dominant racial and ethnic identities increased manifold. Yet, a scan of the historic preservation curricula of higher education degree programs in the US shows that their curricula are still highly derivative of the original 1973 historic preservation degree curriculum established by Columbia University and later amplified by Cornell University and others in the later 1970s. Again, the historic preservation field is doing an excellent job in “preserving,” but it is preserving the wrong things.

This is why urban and regional planning and public humanities programs are places where innovation in historic preservation education are most likely to happen. The vast majority of academic leaders for people-centered change in historic preservation — e.g., Andrea Roberts, Fallon Aidoo, Sara Bronin, Jennifer Minner, and Michelle Magalong — were educated in urban planning and overwhelmingly work in these departments in higher education; their academic appointments are not in historic preservation programs with few exceptions. In their teaching and research, these scholars seek a balance between people and fabric that is essential for advancing the social justice aims of the preservation field and view the relationship between people/place/buildings as synergistic rather than adversarial; people must come first, before the buildings, and, by helping people, you can then save places.

These leaders represent the future of the field and should be nourished, supported, and celebrated. They should be encouraged to create new and innovative historic preservation degree programs free of the dogmatism and white supremacy of historic preservation doctrines and regulations. More educational leaders—especially deans and provosts—need to create spaces that allow these kinds of scholars to flourish and innovate. It is time for preservation education to move beyond token gestures toward authentic change that centers the voices of people with non-dominant racial, ethnic, sexual, gender, and religious identities. And, the only way that this can happen is to put social justice outcomes ahead of bureaucratic processes in higher education in which one nay-sayer can continually derail needed change. But, such a radical change would require re-evaluating what shared faculty governance should look like and ways to hold tenured faculty accountable for unprofessional and racist behavior. I don’t purport to have the answers to these problems, but until academic leaders start addressing these problems honestly and tying them to ethical obligations to our students, someone else will be writing a letter like this in twenty years.

For empirical evidence to substantiate some of the claims I make in this post, refer to:

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. John Carman

    I wonder if the underlying issue here is the assumption that historic preservation is an obvious and inevitable thing to be concerned with? I have been engaged in teaching heritage studies in the UK for about 30 years and at the core of what I do (and always has been — and indeed it was in my own entry into the field at Masters and PhD level) is to ask why we have a concern to preserve the past in the first place. This is the kind of question that also informs your post on post-modern public history in 2015 (although not directly stated) — and we can learn a lot from the philosophically-oriented stance of Spanish-speaking countries. I confess too to being somewhat shocked that a tenured Associate Professor (= Senior Lecturer in UK terms), who will have a fairly solid reputation to have achieved that status, is not allowed to adjust what is presented to students to make the programme both more interesting and more fitted to develop the field in the future. Higher Education is not about training for jobs (although I know senior managers of universities like to think it is) but about preparing students for a changing world — which means addressing core questions about why? and who for? in every subject area. I can understand why you quit but I think it is a shame that you felt you had to.

    1. Jeremy Wells

      Hi John — I very much appreciate your comments on this topic. In the US, nearly all “historic preservation” degree programs are considered to be “professional” programs with an expectation that graduates of these programs must be directly and readily employable based on what they learned in these programs. Unfortunately, this often manifests as a vocation-like training mentality in graduate-level education. Rather than educating students who can think and be prepared, as you write, for a “changing world,” preservation degree programs often over-emphasize producing graduates who can check the boxes and be good enforcers of rules and regulations. The most common complaint from the 3/4 of preservation employers in the US is that graduates of historic preservation degree programs are not able to, from day one on the job, implement complex regulatory procedures (e.g, Section 106 review, tax credit reviews). The harsh truth here is that some preservation employers in the US (i.e., in regulatory enforcement) really don’t want their staff to think, because they don’t have the time and resources for this “luxury.” For a nuanced perspective of this issue, see Jack Elliott’s chapter in my co-authored book, Human-Centered Built Environment Heritage Preservation.

      But, this observation begs the question if people really need a graduate degree in historic preservation to do the regulatory work in the field (again, this is the majority of work done in preservation)? I’ve taught in associates degree (community college), bachelor’s degree, and master’s degree historic preservation programs, and the curricula all look the same. Again, another harsh truth is that much of the regulatory work in historic preservation — especially at the local level — begins to look more like building code enforcement, and the people who do this kind of work usually have 2-year vocational degrees.

      The reason we have master’s degrees in historic preservation in the US is because, in the 1970s, academics who loved architectural history made a whole lot of assumptions of the skills needed of people who would be qualified to work in the field. Back in 1978, when Paul Sprague published a study for the National Trust for Historic Preservation on recommendations for historic preservation education, he challenged many assumptions by the architectural history academics about what kinds of curricula and degrees were necessary. Historic preservation academics, at the time, lambasted his conclusions and sidelined the report. We’ve not had any kind of similar report, since then, in the field.

      In Europe, from my somewhat limited understanding, the prevalence of “heritage studies” programs at the graduate level encourages a more deep and meaningful intellectual engagement of really important topics, like the one you suggest — is “historic preservation is an obvious and inevitable thing to be concerned with?” By the time a student enrolls in an historic preservation degree program in the US, asking a question like this is grounds for heresy. And, if you’re a faculty member in a preservation degree program in the US, you would never, ever ask such a question because your colleagues would no longer trust you to be a “true believer.” You either are expected to join the shared belief system about preservation value that short-circuits this critical thinking or else you’re not admitted into the “club.” I don’t want to belong to this club, so I left.

    2. Jeremy Wells

      John — I also wanted to reply to your surprise that “a tenured Associate Professor, who will have a fairly solid reputation to have achieved that status, is not allowed to adjust what is presented to students to make the programme both more interesting and more fitted to develop the field in the future.”

      First, some nomenclature that’s specific to the US: In US higher education, a “course” is equivalent to a “module” in UK parlance. A degree program (or curriculum) in the US is equivalent to a “course” in UK parlance.

      In the US, faculty (tenured and non-tenured) have quite a bit of leeway in how they teach a specific course (or module) to which they have been assigned — e.g., readings, topics, assignments, and sometimes learning objectives. But to change the curriculum of a degree program (to change a course in UK parlance), which would include changing course (module) descriptions/titles, adding/deleting courses (modules), goes through a process called “shared faculty governance.” In reality, what this process means is that the program becomes controlled by the lowest common denominator, which, more often than not, is the most senior faculty member, who is oblivious to the current state of knowledge in the field, with the loudest voice who then shuts down or derails the conversation. In other words, in shared faculty governance, the goal is to get everyone to agree to change some aspect of the curriculum under the auspices of democratic engagement. Combined with the protections of tenure, which some faculty use as an excuse to engage in terribly unprofessional and violent behavior, every faculty meeting can start looking like one of those public council meetings where everyone starts to shout at each other and everyone stops listening. In my program, I could not even advance the discussion to an agreement that the curriculum had to change at all. Yes, as incredible as it sounds, quite a few people in my program would not support even a discussion about curriculum change, much less actually making changes. In the end, I had to start teaching around the horrendous state of my program’s curriculum, even going so far as to cross words out of course (module) titles and replacing them with more appropriate ones. For instance, my syllabus for a course (module) I taught had an official course (module) title of “Social and Ethnic Issues in Historic Preservation.” In my syllabus, I crossed out the word “issues” and hand wrote “inclusion” above the word and provided this amended title to my students. Just a terrible, terrible experience.

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